Updated: Mar 4, 2020
The majority of questions I answer during consultations revolve around vaccine titers. For those of you who do not know what vaccine titers are, they are your golden alternatives to traditional vaccines, and, our answer to the over-vaccination of our pets. Very briefly, vaccine titers are blood tests that can tell us if your furchild has immunity to Rabies, Distemper, Parvovirus, and Adenovirus (Canine Hepatitis). (These are the diseases included in the vaccinations referred to as "core vaccines".) That is the vaguest explanation I can give. So when I decided to discuss titers, it became apparent that without an understanding of how the immune system works, it could be difficult to understand them, or to counter any arguments from potentially resistant, or titer illiterate veterinarians. Know better, do better, right? I like folks to be well informed. So with that said, I promise to keep this as simple as I possibly can to avoid setting everyone’s brains on fire, but the immune system is a complex marvel so some brain strain may be necessary.
Here it is, the much awaited and requested, vaccine titer post! Well, part one anyway…
Are you me? Are you safe?
These are the two questions the immune systems of all animals (humans are animals too) are asking themselves in response to literally everything they encounter. So, what exactly is the immune system? How does it know what is itself and safe? How does it work? How can the blood tell us whether or not our pets possess immunity to diseases?
Let’s begin with the three lines of defense:
The first line of defense is part of the Integumentary System and are referred to as the Physical Barriers. The physical barriers block pathogens from entering the body and bloodstream. These barriers include healthy, intact skin, sweat, mucus and mucosal surfaces, saliva, sufficiently acidic gastric juices (HCl), enzymes, and healthy gut flora. Physical barriers are considered “non-specific” because they continually protect against a broad range of pathogens.
The second line of defense is Innate Immunity, the 24/7 security and management team. Or, as I like to think about it, the Department of Defense. It is ever ready to launch a rapid, but non-specific, immune response to foreign invaders. Every animal (remember, humans are animals too) possesses innate immunity, with some aspects dating back more than 500 million years. (Cue Dr. Evil and his pinky.) Pretty amazing right!? The innate system can distinguish between “friend” and “foe”. It does this for itself as well as the adaptive immune system and is responsible for evaluating for danger and issuing orders for the adaptive immune system to respond. It combines all the incoming immune information and comes up with an attack plan that it delivers to the adaptive system to carry out.
The third and the biggest, baddest mama jammer of the lines of defense, is Adaptive Immunity. This is the body’s Special Ops or Navy Seals. Highly trained and skilled, the adaptive immune system is capable of targeting their attacks to specific invaders that may have bypassed the physical barriers and innate immunity. It can adapt quickly and cunningly to protect the body against almost any invader. (Foreign or domestic. Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) The adaptive immune system is what we're going to focus most heavily on because this is the portion of the immune system that requires the best understanding when we talk about vaccines and vaccine titers.
These are the branches of the military-like force known as the immune system. We will delve into the specific battalions and their individual troops in Part 2. To wrap-up part 1, however, I want to touch very briefly on how to promote a healthy immune system.
The key to a healthy, strong immune army is digestion. A whopping 70% of the body’s immune system, regardless of animal, resides in the gut. In order to support healthy digestion, a species appropriate, nutrient dense, whole foods diet, including a plethora of antioxidants, is imperative. In addition to diet, removing stressors, such as chemicals, food sensitivities, or environmental toxins, helps to unburden the body which reduces unnecessary stimulation of the immune system. While we’re on the topic of the gut, let’s discuss quickly the secondary organs and tissues. These include the lymph nodes, lymphatic vessels, lymphatic fluid, and Mucosal-Associated Lymphoid Tissue (MALT). Or when found within the digestive tract, GALT (Gut-Associate Lymphoid Tissue, which is found throughout the small and large intestines.) Though deemed “secondary”, this is where the majority of the adaptive immune response takes place. (Remember those Navy Seals?)